In summer 2016, the Local History Division of the Central Library acquired a collection of scrapbooks filled with photographs depicting the construction of the Rochester Industrial and Rapid Transit Railway, better known as the Rochester subway.
These ten scrapbooks, discovered in the basement of a historic building in Canandaigua, appear to have been part of the personal collection of former mayor Clarence D. Van Zandt. Van Zandt was mayor when the subway was planned and a major proponent of the rail system. The books contain more than 650 photographs, many of which have never been seen by contemporary Rochesterians.
The photographs contained within the pages of these scrapbooks illustrate the various phases of the subway’s construction from 1922-1927, but they also provide further historical insight. In addition to portraying the individuals who labored to build the new transportation system, the photos present viewers with a unique glimpse into 1920s Rochester. Not only do the photographs offer early twentieth century views of some of Rochester’s best known structures and sites, but they also feature homes, businesses and factories that no longer grace the city’s landscape.
The staff of the Local History Division decided to create an exhibit on the subway to share this incredible collection with the general public. While scrapbook photos comprise the majority of the exhibit’s materials, various ephemera such as maps, subway tokens and Mayor Van Zandt’s ceremonial silver spade have been included as well.
Contemporary photographs are also on display. One series documents some of the artwork that graces the walls of the aqueduct section of the former subway. Another provides current photographs of former subway station sites to give modern viewers a sense of where the subway operated and how much the city has changed since the system’s demise.
The exhibit aims not only to showcase our recently acquired photograph collection, but also to shed light on the subway’s complicated history. As library staff discovered in the course of our research, the Rochester subway had something of a bumpy ride. Conflicts marked the system’s 29-year run, from debates over whether or not the city should build such a system in the first place, to deliberations over who would operate the subway and whether or not it should be expanded. The subway’s post-operation history has also been fraught with controversy as disputes continue to arise over what should be done with the route’s remains.
Ticket to Ride: The Unsettled History of the Rochester Subway is now on display on the second floor of the Rundel Library.